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First Books: Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

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“The trouble is, Hari, that a human being is easy to identify. . . . But what is humanity?”

Whether large or small, permanent or fleeting, many of us have experienced regret. It’s because of this human condition that one can sympathize with mathematician Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The first book in this seven-volume saga, Prelude to Foundation, opens with Seldon, in the year 12,020 Galactic Era, having just delivered a paper on psychohistory, a theory of prediction, at a conference on the planet Trantor. Although still in the speculative stage and its ultimate fruition uncertain, Seldon comes to the attention of the Emperor of the Galactic Empire and is summonsed to the palace the next day—and so begins Hari’s remorse.

After hearing that psychohistory is not ready for practical use, the Emperor wants Hari to falsify a prediction in his favor. Being an honest guy, Hari refuses. Allowed to leave the palace for his flight back to home to Helicon the next day, Seldon is led astray by a Trantorian journalist, Chetter Hummin, before the sun sets. Told that the Imperial forces will track him if he returns to his home planet, Hari reluctantly agrees to become a fugitive on Trantor, living with local hosts and attempting to stay under the radar. Along the way he picks up a female sidekick, Dors Venabili, a historian who specializes in the rise of Royal Trantor and who is sworn to protect him. What follows, partly due to Hari’s stubbornness and sometimes downright obnoxious behavior, is a series of misadventures. If you don’t appreciate semi-unlikeable characters, don’t bother reading this one. Hari is far from charming.

Prelude to Foundation, first published as a series of eight short stories in Astounded Magazine between 1942 and 1950, is a classic science fiction novel. It’s set far in the future, involves fantastic modes of travel, and imagines advances in technology that seem to foreshadow some of our devices today—book-films for example can easily be seen as the next step in the evolution of eReaders.

As with most science fiction, Prelude to Foundation asks larger questions of the world we live in today. While traveling to other sectors of the galaxy, Seldon and Dors are exposed to their diverse inhabitants, many of whom hold fast to their individual cultural traditions, some of which offend the two travelers—and undoubtedly the reader. It’s unsurprising that Asimov, as someone who eschewed religion, preferring Humanism to the religious Judaism of his ancestors, touches on the misogynistic practices that are often prevalent in fundamentalist communities. For example, in the sector Mycogen, women are prohibited from speak to men and are the relegated to the kitchen.

Also raised is the notion of class. After violating the laws of a spiritual sanctuary on Mycogen, Hari and Dors are whisked off to Dahl, a sector where the people are inherently unsavory. Instituted within the community is a hierarchy. The lowest of the low, designated by employment in the “heatsinks,” the energy-producing plants that the sector is known for, are looked down on by those fortunate enough to have other professions.

Readers of political philosophy will find the ruling tactics of the future familiar. A political agitator in Dahl explains to Hari and Dors:  “The Imperial forces must keep their hands off, but they find that they can do much even so. Each sector is encouraged to be suspicious of its neighbors. Within each sector, economic and social classes are encouraged to wage a kind of war with each other. The result is that all over Trantor it is impossible for the people to take united action. Everywhere, the people would rather fight each other than make a common stand against the central tyranny and the Empire rules without having to exert force.”

And, one of the first things Dors says to Seldon when they first meet at the university where she teaches, she explains the admission policy of accepting a mixture of students, those who are local and those from the “Outworld”: “Professionals are turned out by any university anywhere, but the administrators of the Empire—the high officials, the countless millions of people who represent the tentacles of Empire reaching into every corner of the Galaxy—are educated right here on Trantor. . . . It’s important that the officials of the Empire have some common ground, some special feeling for the Empire. And they can’t all be native Trantorians or else the Outworld would grow restless. For that reason, Trantor must attract millions of Outworlders for education here. . . . That’s what holds the Empire together. The Outworlds are less restive when a noticeable portion of the administrators who represent the Imperial government are their own people by birth and upbringing.”

This mixture of fantasy and politics makes Prelude to Foundation a fast-paced and often thought-provoking story. The twist at the end will leave the reader wondering what happens in the second book, Forward to the Foundation. If you’re looking for an old-school science fiction series for your summer reading pile, this is it.

::[excerpt]::

Hari Seldon remained uncomfortably silent for a while after Hummin’s quiet statement. He shrank within himself in sudden recognition of his own deficiencies.

He Had invented a new science: psychohistory. He had extended the laws of probability in a very subtle manner to take into account new complexities and uncertainties and had ended up with elegant equations in innumerable unknowns. —Possibly an infinite number; he couldn’t tell.

But it was a mathematical game and nothing more.

He had psychohistory—or at least the basis of psychohistory—but only as a mathematical curiosity. Where was the historical knowledge that could perhaps give some meaning to the empty equations?

He had none. He had never been interested in history. He knew the outline of Heliconian history. Courses in that small fragment of the human story had, of course, been compulsory in the Heliconian schools. But what was there beyond that? Surely what else he had picked up was merely the bare skeletons that everyone gathered—half legend, the other half surely distorted.

Still, how could one say that the Galactic Empire was dying? It had existed for ten thousand years as an accepted Empire and even before that, Trantor, as the capital of the dominating kingdom, had held what was a virtual empire for two thousand years. The Empire had survived the early centuries when whole sections of the Galaxy would now and then refuse to accept the end of their local independence. It had survived the vicissitudes that went with the occasional rebellions, the dynastic wars, some serious periods of breakdown. Most worlds had scarcely been troubled by such things and Trantor itself had grown steadily until it was the worldwide human habitation that now called itself the Eternal World.

::[links]::
Prelude to Foundation on the publisher’s website
More on the Foundation series at io9.com

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Written by Gabrielle

July 5, 2011 at 7:21 am

short takes: the magicians by lev grossman

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Remember the last time you ran home to finish a book?  This is it, folks.  THE MAGICIANS is the most dazzling, erudite and thoughtful fantasy novel to date.  You’ll be bedazzled by the magic but also brought short by what it has to say about the world we live in.
—Gary Shteyngart, author most recently of super sad true love story

there’s been much discussion in the literary world about book blurbs, the marketing tool that asks well-known, well-regarded authors to come up with a positive sentence or two about a forthcoming book roughly within the same genre that they themselves write. this praise is then included on the book jacket and in press releases in order to attract the interest of bookstore browsers and media people. while some are cynical, doubting whether the blurber actually read the book, gary shteyngart’s words for lev grossman’s the magicians captures perfectly the encapsulation you feel while reading. it’s the kind of book that makes the walls and furniture drop out around you. with steady fascination and unwavering endurance, i finished all 400 pages in a week.

the magicians might feel familiar at the start—the main characters are a group of enchanted kids who go to a secret magic college—but let’s be honest, genre fiction only lends itself to so much originality. what rescues this story from the jaws of triteness is lev’s superb use of language and philosophical leanings.

in one scene, an uncharacteristically candid dean fogg, the head of Brakebills, the aforementioned magic school, gives an excellent soliloquy on the nature of magic:

“Sometimes I wonder if man was really meant to discover magic,” Fogg said expansively. “ It doesn’t really make sense. It’s a little too perfect, don’t you think? If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart—reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.

“Little children don’t know that. Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it. Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children. The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded.

“But somewhere in the heat of magic that boundary between word and thing ruptures. It cracks, and the one flows back into the other, and the two melt together and fuse. Language gets tangled up with the world it describes.

“I sometimes feel as though we’ve stumbled on a flaw in the system, don’t you? A short circuit? A category error? A strange loop? Is it possible that magic is knowledge that would be better off forsworn? Tell me this: Can a man who can cast a spell ever really grow up?”

in addition to making the barely-avoidable fantasy themes fresh, lev deftly handles the sex scenes that inevitably find their way into these stories. what often feels like an ex-pimply teenager making up for not getting attention from girls in high school, these moments in science fiction and fantasy can often leave a girl reader feeling icky. the magicians, as with any coming-of-age tale with the characters growing into their early 20s through the pages, sex is often uneludible. with lev, the encounters are tasteful, discreet, and not some invitation for the author to compensate for his pubescent frustrations. if lev were bitter about not getting the cheerleader, he isn’t showing it. he also scores major points for including a gay character who, while affecting a certain proclivity towards fashion, avoids the stereotypical mold as well.

lev grossman’s ability to bring scenery to the reader, breath life into characters, and create an instinctive pace makes the magicians a naturally unfolding tale that will leave you with a smirk on your face and a unquenchable desire to read the next chapter in the life of these young enchanters.

the second installment of the magicians series, the magician king, will be published by Viking in August 2011

::[Q&A]::

Q: What was your inspiration for The Magicians? Were you, like Quentin, the kind of “nerd” who’s read and re-read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Once and Future King multiple times?

A: Is there any other kind of nerd? There were a lot of inspirations for The Magicians. Of course, I did all those things, and still do them. I suppose on one level I was trying to bring together the literary sensibilities of the Modernist writers I studied in graduate school, and the glorious escapism of the fantasy novels that I love, and mash them up together into one perfect book, where they would be forced to sit down and talk to each other. On another level I was going through a difficult time personally (divorce) and having a lot of fantasies about other, better worlds that I might possibly escape to. On still another level, it was 2004, and we were in the long two-year trough between Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I badly wanted something new to read. So badly that I decided to write something myself.

Q: How would you compare the C. S. Lewis and T. H. White books to those by J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman?

A: Very broadly speaking—very very broadly—I think the shift from Lewis and White (and for that matter Tolkien) to writers like Rowling and Pullman has to do with the gradual separation of fantasy from religion, specifically from Christianity. In Lewis and White, most of your supernatural power comes from God. There may be magic in the picture—Digory’s uncle Andrew is a magician, and of course there’s the White Witch—but the mightiest power is a mystical, spiritual Christian force. In Pullman and Rowling magic is the only power we see. There is no divine force. In Pullman’s universe magic comes from dust. Rowling’s understanding of magic is more difficult to theorize, but it is evidently tied in closely with human emotions like love and hate, rather than any deity. God may or may not exist in Harry’s world, but if he does he has withdrawn, and doesn’t interfere directly. Magic is a secular power. One of the ambitions of The Magicians is to crash these two world-views, the secular and the divine fantasy, into each other with maximum force.

Q:  The Chronicles of Narnia are superbly written but thinly veiled Christian parables. Did you intend to convey any similar lessons with The Magicians?

A: Well, I think it’s a bit of a red herring to call the Narnia books Christian parables. They exemplify some Christian virtues, certainly. But they’re pretty thickly veiled. And to me the veil is the most interesting part. As for The Magicians, it’s not a parable of any kind. You could probably (I’ve never tried) divide novels into two camps, those that try to build up theories and lessons, and those that explore the way that life is often too messy and difficult and cruel to fit any theories or lessons. The Magicians is in the second camp. Now that I’ve said all that: there is a character in The Magicians who teaches Quentin a very hard lesson about self-sacrifice.

*the Q&A was edited from the publisher’s press materials

::[vocab]::

idiosyncrasy (n.): an individualizing characteristic or quality
caterwaul (v.): to protest or complain noisily
sloop (n.): a fore-and-aft rigged boat with one mast and a single jib
dipsomania (n.): an uncontrollable craving for alcoholic liquors
penny-ante (adj.): small-time; two-bit
glassine (n.): a thin dense transparent or semitransparent paper highly resistant to the passage of air and grease
excrescence (n.): a disfiguring, extraneous, or unwanted mark or part
apropos (adj.): relevant and opportune
vernal (adj.): of, relating to, or occurring in the spring
sylvan (n.): one that frequents groves or woods
persiflage (n.): frivolous bantering talk; light raillery
bumptious (adj.): presumptuously, obtusely, and often noisily self-assertive
epiphenomenon (n.): a secondary phenomenon accompanying another and caused by it
kludge (n.): system and especially a computer system made up of poorly matched components
docent (n.): a teacher or lecturer;  a person who leads guided tours especially through a museum or art gallery
avuncular (adj.): suggestive of an uncle especially in kindliness or geniality
obstreperous (adj.): stubbornly resistant to control; unruly
topiary (adj.): of, relating to, or being the practice or art of training, cutting, and trimming trees or shrubs into odd or ornamental shapes
eidetic (adj.): marked by or involving extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall especially of visual image
ruminant (adj.): characterized by chewing again what has been swallowed
oenological (n.): a science that deals with wine and wine making
saurian (n.): any of a suborder of reptiles including the lizards and in older classifications the crocodiles and various extinct forms that resemble lizards
aeruginous (adj.): having the characteristics of or the color of verdigris— a green or greenish-blue poisonous pigment resulting from the action of acetic acid on copper and consisting of one or more basic copper acetates
multifarious (adj.): having or occurring in great variety

Written by Gabrielle

March 29, 2011 at 8:18 am

Posted in books, reviews

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books for readers :: how to write a sentence / stanley fish

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Chapter 1
Why Sentences?

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’ ” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’ ” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.

But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel Enderby Outside (1968):

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places “ordained” for them—”ordained” is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures—they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine. . . .

. . . Here is Dillard again: “When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” And when you come to the end of the path, you have a sentence.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One / Stanley Fish / ©2011

::[vocab]::

syntax: the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)
syntactical: of, relating to, or according to the rules of syntax or syntactics
inexorable: not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped
syntactic structures: good definition not found
ligature: a) a printed or written character (as æ or ƒƒ) consisting of two or more letters or characters joined together;
b) something that is used to bind
subject: a) one that is acted on; b) an individual whose reactions or responses are studied
object: a) a noun or noun equivalent (as a pronoun, gerund, or clause) denoting the goal or result of the action of a verb;
b) the goal or end of an effort or activity
actions: things done
descriptives: serving to describe
indications: serving to point out
::[bonus]::
stanley fish on ABC radio national’s the book show

Written by Gabrielle

March 27, 2011 at 10:51 am

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portrait of an artist as a tormented man

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Theo decided to give a party for Vincent’s friends. They made four dozen hard-boiled eggs, brought in a keg of beer, and filled innumerable trays with brioches and pastries. The tobacco smoke was so thick in the living room that when Gauguin moved his huge bulk from one end to the other, he looked like an ocean liner coming through the fog. Lautrec perched himself in one corner, cracked eggs on the arm of Theo’s favourite armchair, and scattered the shells over the rug. [Henri] Rousseau was all excited about a perfumed note he had received that day from a lady admirer who wanted to meet him. He told the story with wide eyed amazement over and over again. Seurat was working out a new theory, and had Cezanne pinned against the window, explaining to him. Vincent poured beer from the keg, laughed at Gauguin’s obscene stories, wondered with Rousseau who his lady friend could be, argued with Lautrec whether lines or points of color were most effective in capturing an impression, and finally rescued Cezanne from the clutches of Seurat.

The room fairly burst with excitement. The men in it were all powerful personalities, fierce egoists, and vibrant iconoclasts. Theo called them monomaniacs. They loved to argue, fight, curse, defnd their own theories and damn everything else. Their voices were strong and rough; the number of things they loathed in the world was legion. A hall twenty times the size of Theo’s sitting room would have been too small to contain the dynamic force of the fighting, strident painters.

Lust for Life, the classic biographical novel of Vincent Van Gogh / Irving Stone /1934

painting: Coalmine in the Borinage / Van Gogh / 1879

Written by Gabrielle

March 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

Posted in art, books

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translation matters :: borges edition

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the first time i gave any thought to literary translations was when a friend bemoaned her inability to read french. she felt she missing the true experience of a novel she was reading. for a while i was convinced that my translated dostoyevsky was inferior and the author possibly not worth reading until i mastered Cyrillic. since the initial shock of realizing that what was in my hands was not the author’s original work, i’ve come to trust the art of translation—especially those of well-regarded translators. translations matter, translators matter, and for those who don’t have time to master multiple languages, they are essential. there is no  lack of discussion within the literary community on this theme and i always enjoy hearing what authors and critics have to say.

i recently came across the essay of jorges luis borges, ‘two ways to translate,’ in his nonfiction collection, on writing. here’s an excerpt where he discusses two approaches to translation:

Universally, I suppose there are two types of translations: one is the practice of literality, the other, paraphrase. The former corresponds to the Romantic mentality, the second to the classical. I’d like to explain this statement in order to diminish its aura of paradox. The classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies. Poetry must be a beauty similar to the moon: eternal, dispassionate, impartial. The metaphor, for example, is not considered by classicism as either emphasis or personal vision, but as the attainment of poetic truth, which, once engineered, can be (and should be) seized by all. Each literature possesses a repertory of these truths, and translators know how to take advantage of it and to pour the original not only into words but into the syntax and usual metaphors of his language. This procedure seems sacrilegious to us, and sometimes it is. Our condemnation, nevertheless, suffers from optimism, since most metaphors are no longer representations, but merely mechanical. Nobody, upon hearing the adverb “spiritually” thinks of breath of air, or of the spirit; nobody sees any difference (not even of stress) between the phrases “dreadfully poor” and “poor as a church mouse.”

Inversely, Romantics never seek the work of art, but rather the man himself. Man (as we already know) is neither timeless nor an archetype, he’s Jack So-and-So, not John Doe; he possesses a way of being, a body, an origin; he does something, or nothing, has a present, past, future, and even his death is his own. Beware of twisting one word of any he wrote!

That reverence for the I, the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations.

Written by Gabrielle

February 18, 2011 at 6:13 am

books for writers :: wallace stegner

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conventional wisdom within the publishing industry says that short stories don’t sell—here’s why to write them anyway:

Basic to all fictional writing is the problem of point of view, the stance of the consciousness from which one chooses to make the reader follow the story. . . . The writer of fiction, however he may pretend to be invisible, is always there; he cannot help steering, cannot help providing some double vision, some commentary, insight, or irony. If he wants a reader to participate intensely, he adopts the point of view of one of the characters in the story, sees through those eyes alone, thinks with that mind, knows nothing that that individual would not know. If he wants to imitate the dramatic, he pretends to be a camera—a sound camera—as Steinbeck does in Of Mice and Men . . . He must be in his story but not apparently in it; the story must go his own way while appearing to act itself out. For this sort of skill, the short story is the best practice ground. It is so short that a flaw in the point of view shows up like a spider in the cream; it is so concentrated that it forces a writer to develop great economy and structural skill; and it is so intense that like a high-velocity bullet it has the knock-down power of  a heavy missile.

—wallace stegner, on teaching and writing fiction

Written by Gabrielle

January 19, 2011 at 5:50 am

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books for writers :: the art of fiction

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whether you write fiction or non-fiction most of us at some point have been told, “show, don’t tell”. hyper-awareness of this prescriptive rule can derail a writer’s voice . . . here’s another way to think about it:

art of fiction / david lodge / 1992

 

Fictional discourse constantly alternates between showing us what happened and telling us what happened. The purest form of showing is the quoted speech of characters, in which language exactly mirrors the event (because the event is linguistic). The purest form of telling is the authorial summary, in which the conciseness and abstraction of the narrator’s language effaces the particularity and individuality of the characters and their actions. A novel written entirely in the mode of summary would, for this reason, be almost unreadable. But summary has its uses: it can, for instance, accelerate the tempo of a narrative, hurrying us through events which would be uninteresting, or too interesting — therefore distracting, if lingered over. It is easy to examine the work of Henry Fielding, because he was writing before the technique of free and direct style, in which authorial speech and characters’ speech are fused together, had been discovered. In his novels the boundary between these two kinds of discourse is clear and unambiguous.

the art of fiction, david lodge


[dig deeper] ::

henry fielding was an english writer who lived in the first half of the 1700s. he’s best known for his satirical novel, the history of tom jones, a foundling, the story of an abandoned infant who grows up in the home of the landowner where he was left. as the affection between him and the neighbors’ daughter unfolds, it becomes the classic star-crossed tale. fielding threw some sexual promiscuity and prostitution into the mix, something new for its time, and was considered trashy because of it.

david lodge is a british author whose books have been adapted to television and shortlisted for the man booker prize.

Written by Gabrielle

January 8, 2011 at 10:35 am

Posted in books

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